Raising the Bar
Matthew Kolodziej at William Busta Gallery
Come to think of it, Cheez Whiz, Stadium Mustard, squeeze-bottle ketchup and the
whole sloppy vernacular of fast food adornments have always had fine arts potential.
But Matthew Kolodziej makes the most of such extrusions. In his show Caught in Flux
the University of Akron Assistant Professor invents a sizzling range of acrylic squiggles
and puddles that sit on the surface of his canvases like condiments on a burger. That
said, in Kolodziej’s hands the vivid, complex end results are definitely not McPaintings.
Kolodziej projects photos of construction sites, or sometimes a montage of such views,
on large canvases and goes to work with a marker, reproducing the maze of hard-to-
pin-down structural incidents in purple or blue or orange tones. Then he builds a 3D
layer of clear gel medium partitions on top of them. When that dries, the more
painstaking process of drizzling thinned paint into some of the little cells he’s created
gets under way. Some passages are reminiscent of enamel work, or like a kind of slap-
happy, plastic-fantastic cloissonnism. But the overall range of reference in these highly
dramatic views reaches backward in time through abstract expressionist works by
Arshile Gorky and Willem DeKooning to the origins of Western landscape painting.
Most of Kolodziej’s compositions at Busta’s take place either in an encircling concave
space or seemingly in mid-air, above a vast, panoramic, map-like network of lines and
shapes. Both of these premises bring to mind classical architectural themes and
structures celebrated in 16th or 17th century Italian painting – views of the Colosseum
or the Roman Forum.
Restoration is a six-foot square work that resembles a shattered mosaic of orange,
umber and ocher shards enlivened by very complicated passages of slim white
squiggles, as if it were painted in part with spray-can confetti. Some of Kolodziej’s
paintings have recognizable representational features, but most of Restoration defies
any simple visual resolution. It looks more like an aerial view of a city than like a
construction site, sprouting taupe and gray rectangles across its upper reaches like a
distant view of tall office buildings. As an ambitious, essentially abstract painting with a
title that echoes like a trumpet across the fields of art history, Restoration invites
comparison to Willem DeKooning’s 1950 masterpiece Excavation. That painting has
been seen as an elegy for the wreck of Europe (and of European art) following the
Second World War. It depicts a complex jumble of half-defined shapes which organize
a tortured, chaotic space with their own harsh logic of dislocation. Slapping on black
and white oil based enamel with energetic gestures, Dekooning filled his work with
sound and fury and a deep pessimism about human affairs. A very existentialist
statement, it also seems in its dark way to assert the persistence of the individual and
the validity of human response.
Kolodziej’s Restoration carries a different, though not necessarily opposite message.
As in all of his recent works, overt references to the froth of contemporary artificiality
dominate his expressive means, saying something about the layers of nonsense –
from repressive mechanisms in the Freudian sense to the always incoming tide of post
modern consumerism -- that conceal, control, or even motivate individual expression,
whether in art or elsewhere. And yet there is an underlying sense of giddy freedom in
Restoration, and of some kind of tricky authenticity. It’s genuinely exciting to look at,
for one thing, keeping the eye moving at all times along a network of fractured streets
and avenues (or whatever), bumping through curly white passages that look like
nothing so much as embellishments on a pre-schooler’s lunch box. There’s even
something hopeful about the distribution of detail – how the small stuff is mostly in the
bottom half, and the big things march slantwise into the picture plane, down from the
top corners. It’s as if Kolodziej is saying the best is yet to come.
Compass is predominately blue and white, swirling upwards to a vortex near the upper
right corner. The effect is of being inside a dome built of square blocks, like a study of
the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. Ladder-like objects and snatches of blue and
gray lines form dense areas of construction site detail and are crammed into the lower
right quarter of the canvas, as if driven there by centrifugal force. The painting seems
to describe worlds in collision, as if the sky had crashed into the earth, or at least had
descended close enough to be reached by a ladder.
The ladder or giant crane theme arises naturally from construction/demolition imagery
and Kolodziej uses it as a central device in several paintings at Caught in Flux. For
Synapse he has constructed a crazy quilt of yellow and green, accented with umbers
and burnt orange, floating above the raw-looking canvas. Between these open
patches of clear acrylic medium-coated cloth surface and the network of little puddles
of color, the painting has nearly the effect of a bas-relief: the eye is drawn in and
driven back with a double motion.
A number of ladder-ish shapes are strewn through Synapse, but the main one runs
right up the middle, veering just a little to the right. It appears and disappears,
embedded in the camouflage of Kolodziej’s technique, offering a passage straight out
of the painting. Whether there’s anywhere to go may be another question for another
series of paintings, but most of the works at Busta’s seem to prop open the space they
occupy, lifting the lid on process as they gaze frankly at the mediums they employ,
inviting a new freedom into the age-old dialogue of color and imagery.
[Cleveland Free Times 11/14/07]